policing the police through your len(s)

My talk at ToorCamp

Huey & Bobby taught us to “police the police”. The Panthers stood up to the police, challenging their actions face-to-face. Sometimes a camera is more powerful than a gun. Never underestimate the power of photos, especially video. It was photography that brought the civil rights movement to America’s living room and from there out to the whole world.

Cameras, especially videocameras, are powerful tools in the struggle to maintain a balance of power between protesters and cops. The whole world’s (still) watching. We can watch more, from countless individual sources, in near realtime 24/7. Best of all? We can make our own photographs and video. Cell phones have become the people’s CCTV. Armed with smartphones, citizens have become an online surveillance network. This is true around the world.

The following are my personal experiences and observations resulting from a lifetime of activism, coupled with my love of photography. Most recently I photographed two waves of arrests at #OccupySeattle in October 2011. My video was requested by three lawyers defending protesters resulting in at least one case being dropped by the city. I filed a complaint wtih the Office of Professional Accountability about what I thought was excessive force by an specific officer. Before #Occupy I learned what to do and what not to do while photographing the WTO protests here in Seattle (The Battle in Seattle).

Images tell stores. Better images tell better stories. There’s a difference between snapshots and photographs. You can wave your cell phone around every which way and hope for the best. Or you can take the time to study street photography & photojournalism, learn your gear inside & out, arrive early to study the lay of the land, and practice, practice, practice. If you’re serious, make the time.

A snapshot tends to be a casual, spur of the moment image. Some work, many don’. Instagram has little place in this discussion. Snapshots may have their place at protests and demonstrations but they’re more throwaway than court evidence. If your goal is to document an event be serious about your work. Take photographs, not snapshots.

My advice, study photography. Go to the library and pour over books, look at newspapers & magazines and critique what you see, visit galleries and museums. Learn what’s come before you. Then go out with your camera and take pictures. Lots and lots of pictures. Study some more, shoot some more. Study shoot. Study shoot.

Ask yourself: “Why am I taking photographs or video at demonstrations and protests? What are my goals and intentions? Who’s my audience? Should I focus on the signs and posters, or highlight the role of women and vets in this particular march? If the police arrest demonstrators, use tear gas or batons, or violate people’s rights, what do I want to record? How do I fit in?”

Whether you’re using a cell phone, a camcorder, or a DSLR, you need to know your gear. When people are running around in a cloud of tear gas and charging cops, you don’t want to be fumbling with a new camera. Using your camera should be a reflex. Something you can do in the dark, in the rain, when you’re tired and hungry. No hesitation, no mistakes. Once you’ve mastered the mechanics you then you can focus on composition, balance, patterns, storytelling, etc.

Backups and backups for your backups for both storage and power. Not to mention a second camera, maybe a little point-n-shoot, in heavy ziplock bag. Don’t take what you aren’t willing to lose or have damaged. I use a wrist strap on all my cameras because the last thing I want to do is drop something in the heat of the moment. Before you leave the house synchronize your camera’s clock. You want all of your video and photos timestamped correctly.

If you don’t know the location well, study maps before you walk out the door, including streetview. Visit on foot or bike beforehand if at all possible. You don’t want to get lost in an unfamiliar place. You do want to scout out bathrooms as early as possible.

First things first: Photograph the cops’ faces and badges. Get badge numbes and/or name tags. Somewhere between baseball cards and mug shots. Who’s in command? Where are they in relation to the other cops? Do you see a command center, SWAT team, snipers, medics? Can you see what their game plan is? What hints and clues can you glean from their formation and movements? A sweep or a pinch? And where are the corporate media? They don’t like getting tear gassed and may have been tipped off about what the police are planning to do. Not all law enforcement is in uniform.

The best thing about digital cameras? Storage is free. When in doubt SHOOT IT. Better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it. Use your biggest memory cards first.

Try to anticipate what’s going to happen next when, where, & by who and position yourself accordingly. It’s your right to be there and take video and photographs. Stand your ground and don’t back down. No, some police officers don’t want you to exercise your legal right to document what they’re doing. Know the local laws. I’ve been harassed for jaywalking when the police have blocked off the entire city block. I’ve been told not to run up behind a cop or I might be mistaken as a threat. I’ve had the police establish a buffer zone as a way of pushing me back. Stand your ground politely but firmly.

Be aware of your location in relation to the police and protesters. Getting the best shot and doing the best job documenting events often means being “up close and personal”. Telephoto lens are great but standing next to everyone is more my style. When the police tell me to back up, I know I’m in the right position. I’ve watched other people’s video of #OccupySeattle events and I see myself in their shots. Why? Because many people are behind me like outside observers. I tend to be a participant. My body is as important a tool as my camera. I credit Stephen Shames, former Black Panther photographer, for teaching me this valuable lesson. Sometimes photography gets physical.

Food for thought: working solo vs. working together, either having someone with you so you can focus on shooting or pooling your work with one or more other photographers. Sharing work yields multiple angles, perspectives, and visions. It also opens the door to collaborative work and collective projects. I like to pack light, move quickly, and work alone.

Whatever you do, don’t let them take your camera! You can arrest me and confiscate over my vocal objection, but I’m not handing anything over to you without a fight. I’m a journalist afforded all the rights, privileges, and protections thereof.

When I’m photographing or taking video I’m acting as a witness. That doesn’t mean I’m not partisan. I am. But my goal is to create a visual record to help keep everyone honest and playing by the rules. That goes for protesters as well as the police.

My work has been used by several lawyers defending #Occupy protesters. My video on YouTube got me interviewed on a local NPR station. I filed an excessive force complaint against an officer I captured on video. But if I capture images of someone assaulting a police officer I would turn the footage over to the police. Why? Because that individual wasn’t playing by the rules. My strength as a witness comes from my commitment to recording the truth accurately, impartially, and completely.

Not all cops are evil. They too are the 99%. Talk with them before things get hot and emotional. I’ve been called out by some #Occupiers after I apologized to a police officer for my fellow protesters vile and hate filled rants. My goal is a free and just society, a world full of compassion and free of suffering. I’m not naive about the role the police play in defending the 1% and propping up the system. Nor am I naive about the humanity of those in law enforcement. It’s as simple as the Golden Rule. I demand the same respect from you that you’re getting from me.

When I recorded the SPD on Oct 5, 2011 at Westlake Park I put the video on YouTube without the single act of excessive force I recorded. I later used it as evidence when I filed a complaint with the Office of Professional Accountability. I removed it from the YouTube video because I didn’t think it reflected the behavior of the vast majority of the officers nor was it a balanced account of the day’s events. I made an editorial decision when putting an edited version on YouTube. I treated the exception as just that: an exception. In the end, me and my simple Flip camera won.

A second wave of tent removal and arrests Oct 17 2011.

Here’ an article on phone apps that help you monitor the police. Read it, install the apps, tell others.

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